No Regrets? Perhaps You’re Missing Out

The trend of studying regret through gambling exercises limits understanding.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

A colleague who is a longtime diarist has spent part of the lockdown editing her journals. Now in her 70s, this engaged her in considerable looking back time. She reported that three months into the process, she was “emotional.” More specifically, she felt anxious and depressed. Her regrets focused on missed or misused opportunities; choosing one job and declining another, pursuing projects that were time-consuming and costly but had not yielded, in her view, a good enough outcome. The roles and projects she had taken, she believed, had left her with less than those she had foregone would have yielded.

Initially, I was puzzled.  My colleague has a successful, and continuing, career.  She has strong friendships and a long term life partner with whom she enjoys interest, companionship, and love. What do such unsettling regrets signify?

As I uttered words of comfort: "There is nothing missing in your life, so why should you regret your choices?" I began to experience a common feature of regret: It is contagious. I, too,  too fretted over past choices, though my regrets were of a very different sort.  While my colleague dwelled on opportunities she had declined (she had so many) my “regret angst” focused on incidents of social awkwardness, where I had embarrassed myself, or on actions where I had misjudged someone, and been unfair or hurtful. Though our regrets were very different, hers on missed opportunities whereas mine had a more interpersonal focus, they gave rise to similar uneasy feelings, a mix of anxiety and depression.

Such discomfort explains why psychologists so often give advice on how to contain and manage regret. After all, regret focuses on past behavior. We cannot change the past; regret is useless. Why let it get you down? Besides, regret is bad for you, particularly for older people. Neurological studies claim that a refusal to engage with regret provides “a critical resilience factor for emotional health in old age.”[1}

This avoidance approach to regret, however, is not only simplistic, it also steers us away from useful self-knowledge. Regret stirs difficult feelings, not because it is necessarily toxic, but because it poses challenges. It forces us to consider what we value most, and to face up to the fact that we do not always act in our best interests, or even know, easily, what those interests are. This requires, sometimes, reflecting on what we are missing.  

Regret has benefits. It helps us recalibrate our strategies. It prompts us to take a close look at how we make decisions. We may realize that, after all, the choices we did make suggest we followed our values, and that it is regret rather than past choices that are misaligned with our needs. But we can only reach this conclusion if we allow regret to flood us, if we stay with it, and attend to it.

Before I turn to consider interpersonal regret ( I was unfair-unkind-hurtful) I want to ask: “Why, if regret serves us well, are so many psychologists so keen to counsel us to “master” it? And what neurological evidence is there that regret is damaging?

Neurological studies of regret are based on responses to games that involve wins and losses, often small financial ones. But when we think about the regret we actually experience, we need to respect its complexity, its sensitivity to our mood in the moment and to the broad narrative we form of our lives, day to day. Games foisted upon us by some researcher do not replicate these feelings. There is however one neurological study that may take us a step forward in understanding regret’s importance (though this study, too, is limited by its reliance on responses to a computer game.[2] Drawing on previous findings of the role of the amygdala in regret, the authors show that fMRI techniques reveal different neurological responses to disappointment (something that didn’t work out) and regret (some outcome in which we ourselves played a role).  

They then tease out different amygdala responses to different kinds of regret. It seems that the more aware we are of our objective responsibility for an unfortunate outcome the greater are those punishing feelings of anxiety, fear, and dread (associated with activity in the brain’s amygdala). But even when we are not objectively responsible, we still show that amygdala activity associated with regret.[3] In short, we feel regret when we inadvertently hurt someone (a car accident we could not have avoided) but regret bites more deeply when we could and should have taken more care. Regret seems able to assess our responsibility for any damage we cause. It is a tool that helps us retain essential concern for our effect on other people.

Regret is linked to the morality that makes us care deeply about our impact on others and about our own moral OK-ness (a word that seems more accurate in this context than dignity or righteousness). Our agency leaves us highly vulnerable to regret, even when we could not have foreseen or avoided the negative outcome. And thank goodness for that. There is something terribly wrong with the notion that, in looking back to injury, however slight, whether emotional or physical, that we have inflicted on others, we simply shrug, disengage, and distract ourselves. Regret is uncomfortable, but humans would be a regrettable lot without them.

References

1. S. Brassen et.al. (2012). Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging. Science. 4 May Issue 6081. pp. 612-614.

2. A. Nicolle, D. Bach, C. Frith, and R. Dolan. (2011). Amygdala involvement in self-blame regret. Social Neuroscience. April. 6(2) pp 178-189.

3. 

The philosopher Bernard Williams described this as agent-regret. See B. Williams. (1981). Moral Luck, Cambridge University Press, Chapter 10.